This past Christmas Holiday, I was able to share a moment with my granddaughter who was staying over. In the car, during one of many excursions, we enjoyed a song from the 1980’s that I had heard many times but was new to her. It has a great beat and simple lyrics which makes it easy to sing along. The song stayed in my head long after the Holidays had passed.
As Valentine’s Day approached, this song came back to haunt me. On this day devoted to romance and relationship, some of us will be faced with exploring the boundaries of love with those we care for. Mixed and missed messages from our partners, friends and family may cause us to doubt the our relationships and compel us to look for answers to our insecurities.
Experience in meditation can help us navigate the tumultuous waters of relating to loved ones, but it also teaches us that the first relationship we have to cultivate is the one with ourselves. Missing this last point seemed to characterize the lyrics from the song, Should I Stay or Should I Go, from the British rockers – The Clash. The song I enjoyed in such a fresh new way with my granddaughter.
“Here is the moon of great bliss and skillful means. And here is the sun of wisdom and shunyata.”
Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche from The Sadhana of Mahamudra
For millennia, Asian countries and cultures have celebrated the Lunar New Year. Depending upon the country, this new moon holiday will fall within two months after the Winter Solstice. In the Shambhala community (we follow the Tibetan tradition of Losar or “New Year”) the first day of the new Fire Bird year is Monday, February 27th. Shambhala Centers worldwide will celebrate this day. Everyone is welcome.
Greek civilization used a lunar calendar. Thanks to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, since 46 B.C.E. we’ve been using a calendar aligned with the earth’s orbit around the sun. This calendar was refined in the Middle Ages by Pope Gregory, which is why our current calendar is called Gregorian.
How to start meditating? Different traditions answer that question differently. In Buddhist mindfulness, you start by focusing your attention on the breath. The Buddha himself gave instruction on this breath meditation in the Anapanasatti Sutra.
According to this Sutra, or discourse by the Buddha, there are steps along the path of mindfulness. The way to begin, however, is to be aware of the breath−or more precisely−the sensation of the body breathing. Meditation Practice could start in many ways, but we are already in the habit of relating to our body (and happily, we are breathing). So the breath is a natural and familiar focus for gathering the mind.
In the sutra, even before the Buddha gives instructions on how to meditate, he gives advice on preparing to practice. In other words, even when we’re doing meditation at home, there is a way to begin.
I sit on a few nonprofit boards. The continuing decline in stock markets has left these institutions possibly imperiled. At the beginning of the week, on Monday, I had a mole removed. An hour drive through blowing snow to a visit with the dermatologist scheduled two months earlier. During the drive, a cell phone call from a patron to invite me to assume temporary Board Chair responsibilities for a struggling arts organization. More time will be needed. Outcomes uncertain. The phone call makes me remember long-scheduled commitments to teach meditation looming ahead on my schedule. I had yet to prepare for these.
In the examination room, stripped down to my underwear and socks. The doctor asked me if I thought meditation could be “healing.”
Here it is, my big chance to influence Western Medicine. “Yes,” I answered, intoning with talk of body, mind, and breath. Key, I added, was intellectual understanding or “view” for successful meditation practice. All of this while the doctor scanned my exposed skin with what looked like a fancy magnifying glass. Somewhere in the middle of my pitch, I lost him. Running behind schedule with his patients. Limited time for chitchat, I guess.
He stopped his scanning at a mole on my back.
“Whoa. OK, this one’s gotta go.”
“Oh, really. When should we do this?” I asked, imagining a time down the road when the thought of this procedure would fit in comfortably with all of the worries pressing in on my schedule.
“If it’s OK with you – Now.”
I sputtered something about my immediate plans for the day and then came up with the real question – “Will it hurt?”
“Just a pinch.”
Some more reassurances and a needle prick later there was casual talk about the doctor’s upcoming trip to San Francisco, future emails and phone calls with “results”. Eavesdropping, I thought he was speaking to the nurse until it dawned on me that he was talking to me — referring to the erstwhile piece of me that needed to be tested for cancer. Six days later and a few fitful nights and anxious dreams, the still sore, quarter-sized crater in my back is looking like it just might heal and I haven’t heard anything from the good doctor.
“You are so lazy!” my wife, Jeanine exclaims in exasperation on Saturday – referring to a paper shopping bag emptied of its contents but left to languish for an hour on the floor of the kitchen. I couldn’t disagree. Heightened anxiety distracts me. If left to fester, immobilization is the result. OK, so call this existential crisis “laziness”. I didn’t have the energy to split hairs. In any event, to be sure, more than my usual share of household ineffectiveness had characterized the past week.
During this week my customary morning meditation practice has also faltered. Sure, meditation practice is healing. But probably not if you don’t do it. Last night having exhausted all distractions, I finally talked myself onto the Zafu and Zabuton in our meditation room. While sitting and paying attention to my breath, I faced my anxiety. A jumble of thoughts and emotions pressed on my mind and future. Behind all of them lingered a heightened sense of mortality. My practice was pinching.
Slowly, coming back to mindfulness of my breath, I stopped fighting. The anxiety relaxed into a sense of sadness and loneliness. Was my suffering brave, a profound and timely confrontation with impermanence? Or was it the worry-prone machinations of a comfort-obsessed coward? No way to know. Sitting on my meditation cushion, late on Saturday night, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The sad lonely feeling was a relief. My mind was settling. A week of dithering about, trying to postpone this meeting with myself, was over.
Saturday night I slept well. Sunday morning, for the first time all week, my physician-mind woke me up with a prescription for “healing” meditation.
“Oh really,” my anxious-mind replied. “When would you like to do this?”
“If it’s OK with you”, my physician-mind replied, “Now.”
Editor’s Note: In diagnosing suffering, its cause and remedy, the person known as the Buddha is sometimes called “The Great Physician.” For inspired and thoughtful texts on healing meditation see Tulku Thondup’s Healing Power of Mind and Boundless Healing. For the tradition’s take on what the “physician-mind” might look like, see the Medicine or Healing Buddha.
I assumed the group of students visiting our store here in Barnet were from a high school, but it turned out they were from Indiana Pennsylvania University. This is one way I’ve noticed the passage of time lately: college students are much younger now than when I was in college. However, photos recently posted to Facebook show that I and my classmates were just as young then as today’s college students are now. Curiously, when I see these photos there’s a lack of recognition: people look younger than I remember them. I haven’t seen them for twenty years, but often their current (“after”) photos look more like my memory of them than the 20-years-ago (“before”) photos do. (Except for those like myself with significant hair loss and weight gain.)
There was never a sense that I would age, and in fact I think I still don’t believe it. Life would continue for sure, but I would – will – continue always to be as pretty and as energetic as 20-year-old me. And since I don’t age, and death only happens to old people, that’s something else which never crossed/crosses my mind. But a surprising number of my friends from college are no longer living. People who were younger than me. A dear old friend of mine died of a heart attack a few months ago; she was 41. Can you see where I’m going with this?
Of course, whenever I really start to contemplate my own impermanence, thoughts begin flickering about things which I need to do before I die, and so I’d better get practicing to become a famous middle-aged bald rock musician, or getting in shape so I can experience the smells of Everest Base Camp first hand, or go bungee jumping in the Grand Canyon. But the thing is, these thoughts don’t stay with me for long. People usually apply the old saw “you can’t take it with you” to the accumulation of wealth or material objects, but it seems to apply equally well to the accumulation of thrilling, or entertaining, or mind-numbing, time-consuming, experiences. I can’t take them with me either. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with bungee jumping, or with owning a nice house, or watching Star Trek reruns on my laptop, or whatever. Certainly if one is engaged in what seems necessary, is doing what truly brings them joy, that joy will generally spread infectiously. If I can apply another old saw, it’s not what you do but how you do it.
So the question (besides “What is this thing called life and how do you do it?”) becomes, What is it that truly brings me joy? Which some days is easy enough to answer and some days is not. But the best way I’ve found of asking, or addressing, that question – both of those questions – is to sit down on my meditation cushion and simply look at this human life in this moment. Sitting here between heaven and earth, at, as I think Thoreau put it, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”
Now all I need to do is take my own advice and sit my butt down on my zafu…
Last week I was packing boxes, answering the phone, “dressing cushions,” getting holiday boxes ready for the short trip (just across the Stevens River) to our local Post Office to get packages in the hands of Mark, the Postmaster. Taking the walk to the Post Office, the elements reach out to you. In a light rain, if you manage to look up, you will see clouds shrouding the hills of New Hampshire in the distance.
We might think of community as something external to our life, something extra. We have our car, our home, our job, and then we have our neighbors, our coworkers: our community. But community is not just the people who live next door or who work in the same office, it is also the people who pave our roads, who work at the power plant, who grow the lettuce we eat and truck it to the store. Community is every connection we have with the world around us that sustains our way of life.
These days, everyone’s talking about the reasons to practice mindfulness. What about the reasons that make meditating a bad idea? Below, from my own experience, are 10 reasons NOT to practice sitting meditation: